Of Cowboys, Doctors, Tradition, and the Individual Talent

We had walked to the other side of the rodeo, across from the grandstand, so that we could get a closer look at the calves dashing out of the chute and the cowboys galloping after them.  This was where families of the performers hung out, and suddenly my eye was taken by a child being wheeled past in a stroller.  The earnest two-year-old was dressed in shiny boots and jeans and a striped long-sleeved shirt.  He was leaning forward in the saddle of his stroller, gripping a pink lasso in perfect form, right hand on the throwing loop and left on the curled rope.  As he rolled past, I marveled at his eager concentration, as if chasing an invisible moving target.  Oh, I forgot.  He was wearing a stylish white Stetson. 


Ranchers and farmers have a pithy way of saying it:  “Well, I guess the apple don’t fall far from the tree.”  But the poet T.S. Eliot, in his erudite essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” said something quite related.  He argued that, if we can see further than those who came before us, that’s because we stand atop their shoulders. 


My grandfather was a doctor, and he had four sons—all doctors.  What’s more, the eldest had six children who all ended up as doctors or medical professionals.  Until I took college chemistry, I pretty much assumed medicine was my destiny as well.  It felt like a “birthright.”  In fact, I remember dressing up as an 11- or 12-year-old one Halloween, to try out my anticipated role.  I glued a fake mustache under my nose and hung my dad’s stethoscope from my neck and carried my grandfather’s leather medical bag, complete with bottles of outdated pills and syrups.  It felt kind of “natural” to ring doorbells in this guise and to receive the knowing laughter of our small-town, Kansas neighbors. 


No wonder kids follow in the footsteps of parents.  That’s what they see and know.  Plus, they have an automatic advantage, since they get a built-in apprenticeship.  Just look at how many accomplished actors are the children of actors.  Jeff Bridges or Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas or Jamie Lee Curtis, Laura Dern or Kiefer Sutherland, Ben Stiller, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, or Domhnall Gleeson.  And what pleasure for the proud parents to recognize—in these maturing children—an echo of themselves!


Granddad was certainly proud of his four physician sons.  However, he tended to shake his head when asked how they ALL managed to become doctors, retorting wryly, “Lack of imagination.”  He got laughs from the deflected praise, but I think there is a bit of truth to what he said even if he didn’t realize it.  Doc K.F., as he was known, was a man of admirable duty and demanding expectations, which had its effect.  His sons feared disappointing him, and they were competitive in their attempts to earn his praise.  Whether conscious or not, they each tried to emulate him, and that might explain why, in later years, my father was still questioning why he had become a doctor instead of a farmer or rancher, a way of life that had appealed to him ever since, as a teenager, he had worked at the local dairy barn.


Erik Erickson, the famed developmental psychologist, maintained that young people need to experiment, passing through “identity confusion” so that they can successfully arrive at “identity formation.”  However, if their self-esteem is too dependent on pleasing an authority, they may experience “identity foreclosure.”  They may see no identity but what was preordained.


My father served as a physician his entire adult life—40 years in all, plus a few more in retirement.  He took us to Africa for seven of those years, working as a missionary doctor in remote clinics where he had to improvise—for instance, unraveling a twisted intestine by reading from a propped-up medical guide during impromptu surgery.  He was a bit like a farmer out there in Ethiopia and Sudan, driving a Land Rover on rutted paths, yanking the starting cord on an old diesel generator in the evening, helping to fetch water in barrels.  He was a kind, loving doctor—the sort who listened closely and checked back with patients, wanting to figure out the difficult cases.  But his three brothers always seemed more successful in his estimation. They had gone to Ivy League schools and had become surgeons, not a general practitioner like him.  And his father?  How to match-up to a man who had once been an anatomy professor at the University of Chicago and who had successfully delivered practically every child in Riley County, Kansas?


To Dad’s credit, when I left the pre-med track in college and began to study literature, he was not disappointed.  He supported my interests as I started a career in writing and editing—although he sometimes seemed too supportive during the six years when I worked for a publishing foundation that sent me back into Africa to train writers and editors.  In those years, I could feel the powerful undertow of his worldview and beliefs—his evangelistic, utilitarian understanding of publishing, which went counter to my growing commitment to craft and unvarnished truth.


My turn arrived, and I tried to be supportive of my own sons’ gifts.  However, I can still tell that they sometimes feel a similar undertow coming from me.  Now in their mid-twenties, they push back if I suggest getting a further degree or looking into a certain job opportunity.  They are adamant that they are not like my wife or me, not as concerned with “traditional” careers, me as writer-turned-professor, my wife as Episcopal-priest-turned-bishop.  The youngest is running a political campaign for a woman who wants to be a voice for African Americans on the Des Moines City Council.  After months of protests in the streets and being ignored at city council meetings, he decided he would do what he could to change the system from the inside out.  At the same time, he is writing social justice folksongs.  Meanwhile, the other son is selling Turkmen rugs imported from his girlfriend’s parents in Ashgabat.  And in the free hours, he is peddling his pencil drawings online—healing drawings that, for example, depict Taliban soldiers being transformed into kinder, more-receptive people by blue water-like energy that pours out of the hands of a sheltering Angel Gabriel.    


No, there’s nothing “traditional” about the paths these two young men are exploring!  They are making their own way through the forest.  Except that their chosen paths sometimes appear vaguely familiar in a creative, spiritual sense, seemingly running parallel to my own path and that of my wife.  When I am tempted to call them back toward my route, I have to consciously catch myself.  Sure, I am glad if I can hear them not too far away or when they rejoin me for a bit, walking alongside, but they are 25 and 28 now, and each time they strike off in a different direction again, what is there to say except “Blessings.  Go forth and become.” 


Yes, there’s beauty in tradition, especially when it is chosen, not imposed.  But there’s beauty in diversity too—in the electric individuality of each new person.  Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings warned mothers, long ago, not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys. They proposed, “let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such.”  But maybe they should have added, “Don’t MAKE your babies grow up to be cowboys. Don’t MAKE them be doctors either.  Or anything else.”  Maybe Willie and Waylon should have talked to the fathers as well, saying, “Papas, you may have your ideas, but eventually you gotta let them be who they will be.”

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